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Jorge Ubico

President of Guatemala
In office
14 February 1931 – 4 July 1944
Preceded by José María Reina Andrade
Succeeded by Juan Federico Ponce Vaides

Born November 5, 1878(1878-11-05)
Died November 4, 1946 (aged 68)
New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
Nationality Guatemala Guatemalan
Political party Liberal Party

Jorge Ubico y Castañeda (10 November 1878 – 14 June 1946) was President of Guatemala from 14 February 1931 to 4 July 1944. Ubico is widely considered the last of the Liberal authoritarian rulers in Latin America.


Early years

Born to Arturo Ubico Urruela, a lawyer and politician of the Guatemalan liberal party, Jorge Ubico was sheltered for most of his childhood. He was privately tutored and attended school in Guatemala's most prestigious institutions as well as receiving further education abroad in the United States and Europe.

By 1897 Ubico received his commission into the Guatemalan army as second lieutenant, which was largely a reflection of his political ties. Here he established himself by rapidly rising through the ranks, and, after a military campaign against El Salvador, and the rank of colonel at the age of 28. A year later, he was made the governor (jefe politico) of the province of Alta Verapaz, followed four years later as governor of Retalhuleu. During his tenure, he oversaw improvements in public works, the school system, public health, and youth organizations. In 1918, he drained swamps, ordered fumigation and distributed free medicine to combat a yellow fever epidemic [1], and won the praise of Major General William C. Gorgas, who had done the same in Panama. However, most of his reputation came from his harsh but effective punishment of banditry and smuggling across the Mexican border. He returned to Guatemala City in 1921 to participate in a coup that installed General José Orellana into presidency. Under Orellana he reached the rank of Secretary of War in 1922, but quit a year later. In 1926, after the death of President Orellana, Ubico ran unsuccessfully of president as the candidate of the Political Progressive Party. He temporarily retired to his farm until the next election.

President of Guatemala (1931-44)

In 1930, President Lazaro Chacon resigned after having a stroke. By that time, Guatemala was in the midst of the Great Depression and bankrupt. The Liberal Party joined with the Progressives to nominate Ubico as the successor, and although he was the only candidate on the ballot, he received 305,841 votes [2]. In his inaugural address, he pledged a "march toward civilization". Once in office, he began a campaign of efficiency that included assuming dictatorial power.

Ubico admired Napoleon Bonaparte and preferred to have his photograph taken in his general's uniform. Although he was much taller and fatter than his hero, Ubico believed that he resembled Bonaparte, and his nickname was "the Little Napoleon of the Tropics" [3]. He preferred travelling by motorcycle on his frequent inspection tours of Guatemala's twenty-two departamentos. [4]

As part of development and government reorganization, he installed "Ubiquistas" into key governmental positions. Ubico focused on stimulating coffee exports and improved prices. He built an extensive network of roads and modernized local administrations, including health and school facilities. Ubico also abolished debt slavery and peonage, and oversaw the Vagrancy law which issued identification cards to all Guatemalans for the purpose of enforcing employment.

His methods, however, were authoritarian. Ubico harshly suppressed opposition through press censorship and police control. He also engineered constitutional changes twice to extend his term as president. While his main focus was economic development, it only benefited the upper and land owning classes creating criticism from the middle class. He also stressed the importance of the military through the "educative mission of the barracks."

Ubico was a cold individual who preferred to be isolated with only a small circle of companions. His legendary temper created fear as he dealt with others in a sort of verbal fencing match rather than conversations. His suspicious nature made him addicted to work as he always had to be doing something. He was also a notorious penny-pincher seeking the least expensive means to complete tasks. Ubico was also an opponent of communism equating it with criminality and political opposition.

Tomás Borge described Ubico as "crazier than a half dozen opium smoking frogs"[5]. Ubico reportedly dressed his soldiers in 18th-century French Army uniforms. On his birthday, he would hang a large star in his palace. The star contained the number 5 on it because his first and last names each had 5 letters.

He also professed a concern for the Indian populace in Guatemala, extending facilities to improve their lifestyle. Under his regime the Guatemalan Indian underwent a legal revolution as they were free to move and seek employment. However, this freedom was an illusion as the improvements involved Paternalism and extension of government control.[citation needed] In a sense he merely transferred their dependency from landowners to the national government.

Adopting a pro-American stance to promote economic development and recovery from depression, under Ubico the United Fruit Company became the most important company in Guatemala. He considered Guatemala to be the United States closest ally in the Caribbean. The company received import duty and real estate tax exemptions from the government, and controlled more land than any other individual or group, along with the sole rail road, the electricity producing capabilities, and the port facilities at Puerto Barrios on the Atlantic coast.

While the regime passed through stages by 1939, it had outlived its time and from 1939-1944 was clearly in decline. The administration hung on to the early accomplishments for too long and failed to create new policies effectively losing momentum. The main reason for its downfall was continuismo as the population realized he would never voluntarily leave power. In its later years paranoia hit the president hard creating fear for his security. Ubico was forced to resign by a general strike against him that started in June 1944. He was overthrown by a revolt of political prisoners. The people established a democratic government following this and elected ex exile Juan Jose Arevalo(previously a philosophy professor in Argentina) as President in 1945.

See also


  1. ^ Current Biography 1941, pp847-49
  2. ^ "Rare Distinction of Gen. Ubico's Election," San Antonio Express, February 12, 1931, p3
  3. ^ "Little Napoleon of the Tropics Dies," San Antonio Light, June 16, 1946, p.1
  4. ^ Current Biography 1941, p849
  5. ^ Borge, Thomas: "The Patient Impatience", page 55. Curbstone Press, 1992


Preceded by
José María Reina Andrade
President of Guatemala
Succeeded by
Juan Federico Ponce Vaides

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